Monday, November 30, 2009

Espresso for Dummies

Now I would love to tell some wonderful stories about the ridiculous espresso orders that I often received, but it has occurred to me that most people wouldn’t find them that funny. The problem is that few people really know much about espresso and espresso based beverages – which is exactly why I received so many ridiculous orders in the first place. So, rather then tell hilarious coffee based stories that would only entertain the readers who happen to be baristas, I feel it more prudent to provide the reader with some background on the subject.

Before opening my bistro I had never been a coffee drinker. I didn’t even want the espresso machine but the coffee shop owner wasn’t interested in selling anything less than his entire inventory of equipment. In retrospect, I should have just sold that machine but I had decided to keep it until I determined what sort of revenue it could generate. This left me having to learn the trade of the barista.

I traveled to a few shops that dealt in high end coffee and machines to get some practical knowledge of the art of coffee. I augmented this practical experience with a great deal of reading and viewing of online videos. I didn’t manage to become any sort of expert on the subject, or the techniques, but I definitely managed to acquire a strong enough knowledge base to deal with the matter as much as would ever be needed in my little bistro.

When it comes to regular brewed coffee, the type that drips down through the grounds and into a carafe, there isn’t a lot to know - but what little there is to know is very important. Unless you have access to some sort of wonderful spring water, good coffee really requires the use of filtered water – even one of those filter pitchers for home drinking water will do just fine as long as you replace the filter regularly. The use of filtered water will also extend the life of any coffee machine by years.

The temperature of the water is very important. Too cold and you will end up with weak, sour tasting coffee. Too hot and you’ll wind up with bitter, burnt tasting coffee. The best temperature for brewing coffee is around 180 degrees Fahrenheit. Since most brewed coffee is made with an automated machine, most people can’t control this factor much beyond trying to buy a quality machine that should be factory calibrated to the correct temperature. I was fortunate enough to be able to set the temperature on my commercial machine.

Oddly enough, the least significant factor in making good coffee is the coffee itself. Admittedly, all other factors being equal, quality coffee grounds will produce a better brew than discount grounds – but only after all other factors are equal. If you have a poor water source or bad temperature setting on your machine then you’ll have a hard time making a decent cup of coffee no matter how much you pay for the grounds. As far as the grounds go, freshness is the most significant factor. Ground coffee can really absorb a lot of odours and the results can be horrific. For this reason, I strongly suggest buying the smallest packages of ground coffee available in order to use them before they have a chance to absorb a lot of odour and lose flavour. This is quite counter intuitive in a culture that loves the savings of a ‘warehouse pack’ sized package of anything. The other option is grinding your beans yourself at home, grinding just enough for each pot.

Once you have some good water at the right temperature and some fresh grounds, the rest is pretty straight forward. Start with about one gram of grounds for every ounce of coffee you are making. I can’t strongly enough recommend owning a small digital scale – even if you don’t have a restaurant. They are quite cheap these days and quickly pay for themselves in a number of ways that I won’t get into right here. You may wind up adjusting to 1.5 grams for each ounce, or perhaps you’ll adjust down – but once you have it figured out you’ll have trouble ever again drinking the randomly brewed coffee that is all too common these days, even in some restaurants.

Now while one gram per ounce is very standard coffee for the North American palate, other countries definitely lean towards stronger coffee. Perhaps few lean as far as the Italians; the nation that delivered espresso to the world. Although the French are famous for perfecting very delicate sauces and developing cheese into a scientific art, one must never overlook the genius with which Italians introduced precision machines into the culinary arts. This shouldn’t be surprising from a nation that has produced so many high performance automobiles. From ice cream machines, pasta machines and incredibly high speed blenders to the world changing innovation of the espresso machine; Italians seem always on the cutting edge of culinary technology.

When American soldiers arrived in Italy during World War II and asked for a cup of coffee, their initial reaction was laughter upon being served what looked like a coffee cup from a child’s play set. The tiny little two ounce cup seemed hardly worth a few pennies - given American appetites for the dark brew. Upon taking their first sip, however, these Americans learned to take Italian baristas very seriously. On average, it takes four grams of coffee grounds to make one once of espresso. This means that those little two ounce cups packed all the punch of an eight ounce cup of strong American coffee. The highly concentrated little serving proved to be more than even the toughest American soldier was able to take.

To create such a highly concentrated brew, Italians developed the most innovative coffee machine ever to be seen by java hounds to this day. Because espresso is so highly concentrated, all parameters involved in the process must be strictly controlled to avoid concentrating the flaws as well. The beans are ground only moments before the brewing process. The grounds are packed tightly into a very tiny basket, so tightly that they can later be removed as a small, hard puck. The basket is actually the lower half of a pressure vessel that can be twisted together to form a very tight seal. This seal is required because hot water is forced through the puck of grounds at very high pressure in order to extract as much flavour as quickly as possible. The water used is hotter than for regular coffee brewing in order to extract more flavour – and it doesn’t burn the grounds because the extraction occurs so quickly.

For espresso to ever be trumped by a more intense coffee experience, one would have to develop the sort of technology that is currently only imagined in science fiction. Perhaps an intravenous dose of molecularly modified caffeine coupled with a virtual reality interface that stimulates the brain’s memory of coffee flavour to naturally unattainable levels. If this does ever happen, I expect that the machine will be of Italian manufacture.

These poor American soldiers had to swallow their pride and ask for their coffee to be mixed down to something more suited to the North American palate. Italian baristas soon became used to serving this American style coffee which, in their native tongue, they called ‘Café Americano’. To this day you can walk into any espresso bar and simply say, “Americano,” and receive a watered down espresso. Don’t be fooled into thinking this watered down espresso is the same as regular brewed coffee, however. The freshness of the grind and the full flavour of the aribica beans still waft through. If you want a bit of an extra kick from your morning Americano, just ask the barista to hold back a bit on the water. If you want an incredible kick, ask for a double Americano. Rather than being one quarter espresso, a double Americano should be about half espresso. Be careful, however – once you become accustomed to a strong Americano, you’ll never again find satisfaction in regular brewed coffee.

Once a person is familiar with the espresso and Americano, it’s doesn’t take much to understanding the rest of a coffee bar menu. A latte is, more precisely, a café latte and all that means is coffee and milk – although it’s actually espresso and milk. How much milk is very much a matter of style but the milk is almost always heated with a steam wand to keep it from chilling the espresso. In Europe the mix of espresso and milk may be half and half, but North American style lattes tend to be about one quarter espresso and three quarters milk. If the milk is chocolate flavoured, or if chocolate is added, then you have a ‘mocha’ or a café latte mocha.

One point that I would like to drive home is that ‘cappuccino’ is not a flavour; it’s a texture. A cappuccino is nothing more than a latte in which the milk has been so thoroughly swirled by the steam wand that it whips up like egg whites into a micro-foam. Some of the milk stays as a liquid and mixes with the espresso, but a lot of the fat is whipped up into this micro-foam and floats on top. This serves both to keep the beverage warm and to provide a very silky finish. The current trend towards treating the word ‘cappuccino’ as a flavour has greatly complicated the efforts of those who sell espresso based beverages.

The price of a cappuccino at my bistro was a little bit more than a latte simply because only Marty or I could consistently produce the micro-foam. This created a specialty labour requirement that I felt deserved a little compensation. Time and time again, customers walked in and ordered a cappuccino in complete certainty that they knew what that meant. We were always open to talking about the differences in the espresso beverages but most customers weren’t interested in hearing what we had to say. The real fun came from the customers who asked for a cappuccino with no foam – all we did was charge them the extra amount and then serve them a latte. The problems came when these same customers would lament that their drink didn’t ‘taste like a cappuccino’. Inevitably this arose because of factory food industry marketing strategies that exploited the trendy-ness of the word ‘cappuccino’ while delivering some sort of caramel or butterscotch flavoured dairy product. It pains me to say this, because I never wanted to be in the coffee business and certainly hate sounding like some arrogant barista, but there should be laws regarding what can be called espresso and cappuccino.

For those who drink coffee and have the desire to expand their horizons a little, please take the time to ask some questions. I can’t speak for every proprietor, but I really do appreciate being able to sell my customers a product that they understand and it’s great to meet customers who aren’t afraid to ask a few questions about what’s being served. If you want to try a non-espresso based beverage from a coffee house, try asking for a ‘London Fog’. No, I won’t explain what it is – that’s the homework portion of this chapter.